Me and my Nikon

Although I couldn’t take journalism classes at the University of Missouri until the beginning of my junior year, I visited Neff Hall when I was a sophomore to imagine my future there. I observed the photographers and understood immediately that I needed a good camera. The Yashica that I had used in high school wouldn’t cut it. Besides, it belonged to my father. 

I remembered what a University of Kansas professor had told me at Midwestern Music and Art Camp. “Get a Nikon,” he had growled.

Most of the photojournalism majors had Nikons. Black bodies, not silver. Like professionals used. That’s what I wanted. But they cost so much. My father suggested we look for a used camera and volunteered to watch the classifieds.

I wish I had a copy of the ad. Or remembered the address. We parked on the street in a sketchy neighborhood. The Arts and Crafts bungalow had seen better days. A bearded guy who looked like a hippie opened the door. He led us to the dining room where the complete Nikon system – pristine camera bodies, lenses, and filters – was arranged on trays like a display in a fancy store.

“Got it overseas,” he explained. “When I was on leave from Vietnam.”

My father and I often argued about the war in Vietnam. He was appalled by the anti-war movement. I was appalled by a war that seemed wrong in its intent. The camera seller looked like he might be on my side, not my father’s. He stood next to the trays. “This was much cheaper there. That’s why I’m able to sell it for less than in stores.”

I had earned enough money that summer to buy one camera body and one lens. I bought a black Nikon body and an F2.8 thirty-five millimeter moderate wide angle. I knew enough not to buy a fifty millimeter lens, a “normal” lens for the general public. I would have to save for a few more months before I could afford to buy a 105 F2.5 moderate telephoto. (To this day, this is my favorite shooting combination: moderate wide angle and moderate telephoto.)

On our way out of his house, the vet asked my dad and me if we would like to see his art project. He opened a door to what had been a bedroom. The space was filled with a thousand shiny silver balls. Christmas ornaments, each hanging by a filament. Light from the windows was reflected in perfect vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines. I thought it was beautiful. I could tell my father was less impressed.

∞ ∞ ∞

At my first photojournalism class, I was crushed to learn that we had to use the school's cameras, medium format twin-lens Rolleiflexes, to shoot our first assignment: “Photograph an emotion.” I had trouble loading the camera and advancing the film and was too embarrassed to ask for help. I ended up with just one barely usable negative. The image was a mother and child in profile, a cliché but a pleasing composition. I struggled to make an acceptable print, then handed it in.

The professor did a slide show of our submissions. (That took an effort in those pre-digital days. A teaching assistant had to copy all our prints on slide film, develop that, then mount the slides.) When my photo came up, the professor criticized the print’s lack of contrast, the absence of pure black and white tones. But he praised the subject, the moment I had captured. The emotion of the photograph. I was encouraged.

I used my Nikon for the next assignment. And for years after that.


One of my fellow photojournalism students at Mizzou took this photo. We were in New Ulm, Minnesota, to shoot photos for Documerica, a gig arranged by visiting professor Flip Schulke. To see what I was shooting, look here:

Abrams Nancy